GOP’s midterm bet: Voters will care more about inflation than abortion

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
“It’s just like great Democrat strategists said many years ago: It’s about the economy, stupid, and that’s what people are going to be voting on,” said Sen.

WASHINGTON – One week after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would eliminate the constitutional right to abortion, Republican candidates and strategists are increasingly confident that such a decision would not seriously harm the GOP’s chances of regaining House and Senate majorities come November, as Democrats have suggested it might.

That belief is rooted in reams of polling, nearly all of it conducted before the leak, showing that economic challenges, particularly runaway inflation, are by far the most powerful force motivating voters this year, followed by crime and immigration – issues where Republicans believe they will have an enduring advantage. And, so far, they see scant evidence that reproductive rights are set to dislodge those priorities, given the often-muted reaction in states that have already moved to restrict abortion rights.

“Right now, it’s unknown territory for both sides,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview last week. “I don’t think it’s going to override inflation, crime, open borders, school frustrations and all the other things that seem to be driving the president’s numbers into the tank.”

Republican candidates are likely to stick to a playbook that many debuted last week, after Politico first published Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion striking down Roe: downplay, divert and dodge – refocusing public attention on what they believe will be more potent issues.

“If you come in here with the sky-is-falling argument, I would look around North Carolina and say it hasn’t,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who won election in 2014 after supporting a law requiring pregnant people to get ultrasounds before an abortion.

Tillis is not on the ballot this year, but the state’s other Senate seat is, as are dozens of legislative seats. The likely Democratic Senate nominee, former state Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley, has moved to make abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign, while the leading Republicans – Rep. Ted Budd, former governor Pat McCrory and former congressman Mark Walker – have all stood by their long-standing antiabortion views.

While Democrats will seek to make abortion an issue, it will ultimately fail to break through, Tillis said. “It’s just like great Democrat strategists said many years ago: It’s about the economy, stupid, and that’s what people are going to be voting on.”

That stands in sharp contrast to what Democratic leaders are saying publicly, pointing to a potential Roe reversal as a midterm game changer. Party leaders are heralding the threat of not only state bans on abortion but a possible federal ban passed in Congress to motivate pro-abortion-rights voters to get to the polls and elect Democrats.

“Senate Republicans will no longer be able to hide from the horror they’ve unleashed upon women in America,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday. “After spending years packing our courts with right-wing judges . . . the time has come for Republicans – this new MAGA Republican Party – to answer for their actions.”

Early public-opinion polling shows little evidence of a massive swing against Republicans based on the impending threat to Roe. A CNN survey taken in the immediate aftermath of the leak showed that Americans favored keeping Roe intact by roughly 2 to 1, yet Republicans still enjoyed a seven-point advantage over Democrats when voters were asked about their midterm preferences – a margin that would easily swing both chambers to the GOP.

Democrats insist that will change if the draft ruling becomes official and once candidates and groups start spending their massive campaign war chests on advertising that highlights the threat to reproductive rights. And top party leaders believe that the issue will have special resonance in some of the midterm elections’ top battlegrounds.

“There’s certain states that have even stronger support for Roe v. Wade,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., citing New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona as places where party research has showed particular salience for abortion rights. “And there’s a very clear contrast between where our candidates are . . . in those states and the Republican candidates, [who] have taken, for the most part, very extreme views.”

In New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D, moved immediately to put abortion rights at the center of her reelection campaign. In a May 3 speech to Emily’s List – a political action committee that helps elect Democratic female candidates who favor abortion rights – delivered just hours after Politico published Alito’s draft, she cast the election as “a fight not just to defend reproductive health care but a woman’s right to control her own destiny.”

“It’s a fight we must win,” she said.

Even in a state defined by its “Live Free or Die” approach to personal liberty, though, Republican candidates are betting that the issue simply will not be on the top of voters’ minds. A week after the draft leaked, the leading Republican candidates in the race – all men who describe themselves as “pro-life” – have each moved to defuse the issue by declaring it moot in New Hampshire, whose Republican legislature and governor enacted a law last year that banned abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy except to save the life of the mother and also instituted an ultrasound requirement.

“There has been outrage over that, along with extremists in Concord defunding Planned Parenthood, and people are very, very concerned,” Hassan said in an interview last week. “And so I will continue to point out to voters that three of my opponents running on the Republican side have already endorsed the Alito draft decision, and that’s of great concern to people in New Hampshire.”

But Dave Carney, a consultant for GOP candidate Chuck Morse, said it is far from clear that the decision, if adopted, would prompt a groundswell against Republicans. He cited millions of dollars of ad spending last year attacking New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, R, who had been considering a run against Hassan, that focused on the abortion legislation. The onslaught, he said, did nothing to dent Sununu’s popularity.

Morse, who serves as president of the state Senate, said in a statement last week that Republicans “settled the law” in the state with last year’s legislation and that any Supreme Court decision resembling Alito’s “will have no impact on New Hampshire.”

“The opinion leads one to think they’re going to basically say this is for the states to decide, and New Hampshire has decided, and so it’s really not that big a deal,” Carney said. Much more impactful come November, he said, will be the price of oil in a state where 80% of residents use it to heat their homes.

A similar balancing act is on display in Nevada, where the leading Republican Senate candidate, former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, released a statement last week saying Alito’s opinion, if adopted, would “constitute an historic victory for the sanctity of life” while also asserting that abortion rights are “currently settled law in our state” – a reference to a 1990 voter referendum that ensured abortion rights up to 24 weeks of pregnancy and that can be undone only through another referendum.

Democrats have signaled that calling the referendum “settled law” is not going to settle much of anything – citing Laxalt’s filing of public briefs as attorney general in support of other states’ much more restrictive laws, among other aspects of his record showing opposition to abortion rights.

The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, said at the Emily’s List conference that “there’s no doubt in my mind” that Republicans would seek to undermine the 1990 referendum and that Laxalt would “be an automatic vote for legislation punishing women for seeking an abortion.”

But Republicans say the state-law backstop gives Laxalt some credibility in claiming that Nevada’s abortion laws are simply not at risk, thus allowing him to quickly pivot to other matters with more proven potency than abortion.

“It’s not registering on issue polls,” said Josh Holmes, a McConnell ally whose firm, Cavalry, consults for Laxalt. “I’m looking at them. It’s just not.”

As the impact of the leaked decision has percolated on the campaign trail, Republicans have chosen their words carefully – out of both concern that the final decision might be watered down and hope that the leak itself might anger some voters.

On Friday, former president Donald Trump talked for nearly an hour and a half at a rally in Pennsylvania, joined by Mehmet Oz, a doctor and TV personality who, like Trump, expressed support for abortion rights before becoming a Republican Senate candidate. On the cusp of a historic antiabortion triumph, one that Trump’s judicial appointments had made possible, the former president said briefly that their party protected “innocent life” – and that the justices were “making a very big decision now.”

Several advisers said Trump was still trying to assess the political ramifications of the decision and whether overturning Roe would be popular. He personally has told advisers that he would support limiting abortions but having “some exceptions,” a person close to him said. As president, Trump saw rolling back abortion rights as a way to solidify his support among evangelical voters.

Party organs are similarly circumspect about their messaging around a possible abortion rights rollback. Republican National Committee officials have worked with Trump adviser and strategist Kellyanne Conway and others on the right to talk about messaging a decision such as Alito’s.

Conway conducted a poll for the RNC that looked at various positions on abortion and how the party could win while not committing to banning the procedure entirely. “Engage and enrage,” Conway said in the presentation, calling on the party to attack Democrats for what she called liberal positions on abortion.

But her poll showed that most Republican voters did not view it as a top-two issue – only 10% said they did, trailing more than 10 other issues.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a memo advising candidates on ways to “combat potential attacks from Democrats” and “call out Democrats for using obsession over abortion to avoid talking about their record.”

Americans support “reasonable restrictions on abortion,” according to the committee’s research. Democrats could be exposed as “angry” and “strident” if Republicans shifted the discussion to issues like “gender selection abortions,” or how Democrats wanted to nix the Hyde Amendment, which bars public health-care funds from paying for the procedure.

Many Republicans have stuck to the script, alternating between condemnation of the leak and defenses of limits on the period when abortion should be legal. “Only seven countries in the world allow elective abortions after 20 weeks,” tweeted Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., a freshman who has frequently diverted from the leadership’s messaging. “America is one of them, along with China and North Korea. Clear enough for you?”

In the interview last week, McConnell said that while most of his conference was in favor of overturning Roe, he has largely avoided talking about the decision, describing it as a “draft opinion” while also warning that Democrats were at risk of overreaching on the issue.

“We’re going to find out at the end of the year how big an issue this was,” he said.